Nearly 1.5 million foreign pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia so far for annual Hajj pilgrimage


Mecca (AP) — Muslim pilgrims streamed into the holy city of Mecca on Friday ahead of the start of Hajj next week, as the annual pilgrimage returns to its monumental scale after three years of heavy restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi officials say close to 1.5 million foreign pilgrims have arrived in the country so far, the vast majority by air. More are expected, and hundreds of thousands of Saudis and others living in Saudi Arabia will also join them when the pilgrimage officially begins on Monday.

Saudi officials have said they expect the number of pilgrims to reach pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, more than 2.4 million Muslims made the pilgrimage.

On Friday, pilgrims thronged the Grand Mosque in Mecca to attend weekly communal prayers. Many then did a ritual circuit walking seven times around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure inside the Grand Mosque that is Islam’s holiest site. On Thursday night, the vast marble court around the Kaaba was packed with the faithful, walking nearly shoulder to shoulder — in stark contrast to scenes two years ago at the height of the pandemic, when the sparse numbers kept far from each other in the nearly empty court as they walked the circuit.

Pilgrims do the circumambulation, known as “Tawaf” in Arabic, upon arriving in Mecca, and the large crowds circling the Kaaba will last into the Hajj’s first day.

Carrying umbrellas against the sun in temperatures reaching 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) on Friday, pilgrims walked for kilometers (miles) from bus lots into the Grand Mosque area in central Mecca, often jostling with barricades set up by security forces to direct the giant flows of people. Coming from all around the world, many pilgrims converged on nearby shops and malls to buy souvenirs.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to undertake it at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do so. It is one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

This year’s pilgrimage will be the first without the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer than 10,000 pilgrims performed the Hajj in 2020 and around 60,000 in 2021 — all of them residents of Saudi Arabia since pilgrims were forbidden to come from abroad. Last year, around 900,000 made the pilgrimage as Saudi Arabia allowed limited numbers of pilgrims from abroad.

The Saudi media ministry announced Thursday that more than 1.49 million foreign pilgrims had arrived through its international ports by Wednesday, with 1.43 million travelling by air.

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